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Tarot Philosophy: The Very Hungry Card: Aquinas, Buddhism, David Lynch and Eric Carle 

“On Saturday, he ate through one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon
That night he had a stomach ache.”
―Eric Carle  

We all love to eat and sometimes to overeat till we reach the state of gluttony. Our meals offer us the culinary pleasure of filling our plates again and again until we feel the sweet taste of satiety. However, after the delightful feast the pleasure is often replaced with a sense of emotional emptiness. This emptiness is manifested by the point that we cannot understand how, just a while ago, our plates were filled without hesitation with loads of food and now we cannot even look at them. We rush to pack the leftovers of our dying pleasure and put them quickly into the refrigerator until tomorrow. We often have the experience of guilt after overeating. We feel that our moral obligation is to “burn” the calories we have just accumulated and we are ready to take any measure to ease the agony of our bodies.

One of the most interesting children’s books which deal with the phenomenon of gluttony is “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle (1929- ). In this wonderful story we follow a little caterpillar for seven days from the moment of its birth until its turning into a cocoon and then into a butterfly. The consciousness of the caterpillar develops through the story according to the gluttony motif: from the early days of controlled eating of fruits and vegetables to the compulsive gluttony of junk food just sixth days after. The caterpillar moves from eating fruits and vegetables to overeating synthetic products such as sausage and a lollipop thus the book describes the relationship between the naïve little caterpillar at the beginning of the story and the capitalist society to which he was born. Eventually, the caterpillar returns to its original nature by eating green leaves and in the seventh day it mends his eating habits and discovers his fate as a beautiful butterfly. However, if we take it to the human aspect, the story leaves the reader wondering whether we are sentenced to eat those synthetic products as a necessary step of growing-up. Actually, it is a complex metaphor of the human condition: do we enjoy consuming those products or is it a necessary ingredient of our reality? Is the Sisyphean and erroneous process of growing up is something we have to go through in order to fulfill our destiny in the world?

One possible answer to that question is that the desire to eat (properly or improperly) is related to the process of fertility: both of them occur in the abdomen and both fill us with inner beauty and glamour coming from inside-out. Our nature automatically starts the mechanism of eating in order to keep ourselves fit for reproduction and similarly the caterpillar feels it has to eat in order to develop into something else.

The Tarot offer us a similar mechanism of “gut feelings” associated with eating and fertility. If we will examine the Empress card we will notice she points to her stomach and maybe this gesture indicates that our productivity and growth will come from there. Generally speaking, the card describes our connection to the divine feminine and the application of our feminine side to our souls and bodies. When we say we have a “gut-feeling” we are always united with the empress through her great maternal abdomen and her large pelvis. Both in the caterpillar story and in the card the idea that the food we eat represents both the material world and the world of passions is fully expressed. 

 The Empress is pointing at her belly and her wide hips in a suggestive fashion which unites passion and matter. Even her grip at the end of the wand is both delicate and confident and therefore represents the unification of passion with material security. Like the caterpillar story this unification will lead us to our destination. In this way, the empress and the caterpillar never lose their spiritual and material grip of the world. In addition, we see the empress embraces her shield with the engraved image of the eagle. The royal eagle suggests that her maternal gut feelings will someday make her fly away from the daily routine to the royal rebirth of her nature. Like the caterpillar story which eventually becomes a colorful butterfly, we can confidently say that both narratives claim that the balance of matter and passion is the key to be the master of your own domain.  The way to achieve the balance won’t be easy and sometimes our passions will win the battle of attention: we see that the eagle and empress gazes are directed towards the tip of the wand and not towards the belly as if telling us that we can surrender to our passions for a moment. Similarly, In order to eventually discover its destiny the caterpillar was extremely passionate to eat the industrial food that does not come directly from nature such as sausage, cakes and more. Likewise, we notice that the empress is sitting in an artificial yellow frame indicating that the reconnection to our maternal feelings cannot happen without breaking the structural and maybe institutional frameworks of society.

Our discussion concerning the Empress card still does not answer the question why Carle and many other writers think that gluttony is such a terrible thing?  The medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas discusses in length the phenomenon of gluttony and it’s relation to sin. According to Christian faith gluttony is regarded as one of the seven deadly sins and thus it raises a few questions which Aquinas is keen to answer: Could gluttony be considered a sin? Is it a mortal sin? Is gluttony the greatest sin of all sins? Aquinas’s method of writing is always fascinating: he always bothers to present the most convincing arguments of his opponents, then he raises his thesis on the subject, and for conclusion he addresses all the objections raised.

Is gluttony a sin? Aquinas claims that although we feel regret and shame after overeating, the vast majority of people don’t consider gluttony to be a sin. Aquinas tells us that if gluttony was a sin then we would have felt its burden already from the first sip or bite. But at the beginning of the meal we do not feel sinful and therefore gluttony is not a sin. In addition, we cannot refrain from eating and drinking, therefore gluttony, even if it is an excessive form of eating, cannot be regarded as a sin because sometimes it is inevitable. In spite of those convincing arguments for not considering gluttony a sin, Aquinas argues that gluttony is a sin. Gluttony is an excessive desire to eat and drink which causes us to act not according to reason and we actually turn against our nature. 

Concerning the claim that gluttony is not a sin because we don’t feel sinful at the beginning of the meal Aquinas believes that when it comes to gluttony it is not a normal and healthy appetite. In fact, the healthy appetite does not involve morality at all because it is unrelated to moral standards. There is a different kind of appetite which is passionate and gluttony is the immoral side of it. In gluttony we devour from the first moment in frenzy acts which are against the rules of logic and reason so gluttony is a sin. 

The second claim was that gluttony is inevitable but we have already seen that Aquinas doesn’t regard it as an expression of normal and healthy appetite. In fact, there are two types of overeating and only one of them is considered gluttony and a sin in the eyes of Aquinas: the first type is an unconscious and exaggerated overeating which is not a sin but an expression of immature personality. Only when the excessive eating is done out of conscious thought to consume everything in sight, then it is considered gluttony and sin.

Food and sex are frequently regarded as the basic needs of all human species. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) famously claimed that if we do not provide those needs, we cannot climb the pyramid ruled by self-fulfillment. The problem with this model is that we never really fulfill our basic needs because the fulfillment is always accompanied by the irrational feelings of guilt and regret. We commit the sin of gluttony on a daily (and sometimes even hourly) basis and thus maybe we can think of it as the most deadly sin of all sins. Is gluttony the worst sin of all sins? Aquinas does not think so. His opponents will claim that gluttony is the worst of all sins because Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden due to their gluttony. Likewise, the flood, the destruction of Sodom and more: all occurred as a result of sin involving gluttony. Secondly, it seems that gluttony forms many other sins like lust, greed and pride. Since the cause is always more powerful than the effect gluttony is the severest of all sins. 

Aquinas believes that the severity of sin is measured by three aspects: first, it depends on the object of sin. Sins related to God are of the worst kind and therefore we can’t say that gluttony is a severe sin because it is associated with physical desire. Second, the degree of severity of sin depends on the person doing the sin. Grave sins are done by few people and hence it easy to see that gluttony is not a grave sin because we all, without exception, must eat and sometimes we have no choice but to overeat. Third, the degree of severity of the sin is measured by the severity of the outcome. It is agreed that the result of gluttony is not serious at all so gluttony is not a severe sin. Concerning the Torah punishments, Aquinas argues that those sinners have done the real severe sin before the sin of gluttony and actually gluttony just accompanies grave sins done earlier. Gluttony might be the reason for many sins but even if we accept this claim it does not mean that gluttony is a more grievous sin than them.

We have seen that Aquinas mentions the story of Genesis and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden as part of his discussion on gluttony. Now we will examine what the story of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and the Tarot cards have to tell us about these founding myths. Beyond the almost trivial fact that the story of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” takes place over seven days, the downward spiral of the caterpillar begins when he eats the apple. The act of eating is accompanied by the caterpillar crawling through the apple hinting us that sin is not accidental but is calculated and has a defined route. Likewise, Adam and Eve have realized from the outset that they have deteriorated to the slippery path of righteousness, temptation and guilt. Our consciousness is born in the biblical story on the sixth day and the first notion of Adam is that he can take advantage of the natural food surrounding him. Similarly, the caterpillar discovers the diversity of food in his world on the same day. So “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” story hints that the initial consciousness of food is actually the initial consciousness of sin. 

The connection between crawling on the ground and the phenomenon of gluttony is represented in the Tarot as well. If we examine the Temperance card we see that she pours water from two jars which may represent two opposite sides of a particular matter. The mid liquid generated from these two jars might be a symbol for balance and more explicitly calls for moderation on the subject of food and beverage consumption. However, this harmony of the temperance is always in danger. If we look at the legs of card we find that they are deeply established in the ground and the hem of her dress is wrapped with hungry caterpillars and snakes. Thus the card implies that the process of achieving harmony with the universe might disconnect us from the mundane reality. The message is that we cannot completely eliminate the part of the “Hungry Caterpillar” in our personal identity. It is very clear that we must think of our healthy consumption of food but we can overeat occasionally as well. Our preoccupation with ourselves and our dietary habits disconnects us from reality, which includes worldly temptations.

But what exactly is the personal identity of this gluttonous person? Is it real? One can suggest a Buddhist interpretation of Carle story which undermines our previous conclusions.    

The story of the hungry caterpillar may metaphorically illustrates the concept of emptiness (Sanskrit; Pali: suññatā) in Buddhism as a whole and in Mahayana Buddhism in particular. According to Theravada Buddhism we do not have a permanent self-identity that continues from moment to moment. There is an illusion of continuity, but in fact there is only a sequence of moments called Dharma and it establishes reality. In the story the caterpillar eats series of leaves, then eats a series of fruits of the same kind, and finally comes a chaotic sequence of foods of various kinds. However, the caterpillar’s self is not formed by any sequence. The last series of chaotic foodstuffs emphasizes that the only thing which really changes is the nature of the sequence itself. The caterpillar is still “hungry” for finding his “true” self.

Mahayana Buddhism goes beyond this concept of the self and not only negates the existence of an ongoing self but also denies the very reality of the selfhood moments themselves. The Dharma is a simple concept because the nature of things is their emptiness. We are left with two paradoxical truths: according to the first truth, everything is an illusion and there is no self-identity to anything in the world. According to the second truth, we must attribute identities to all distinguishable things in our mind in order to act in the world. Mahayana Buddhism steps into this paradox and simultaneously holds both truths. It solves the unbridgeable by saying that the relationship between the two truths is not static but rather a process of an endless meditative thought. In the first stage, we distinguish between things according to their selfhood, and in the second stage we do not make any distinction. In the third stage, Mahayana Buddhism asks whether the very distinction between the stages is real. This question brings us back to the practice of identities and the distinction between things and so on.

These three stages are actually the three metamorphoses of the caterpillar: in the first stage it emerged into the world as a leaf-eating creature, in the second stage it realized that the rampage eating did not establish any self-identity but only a abdominal ache. In the third stage, it underwent a metamorphosis from a golem to a butterfly whose existence is detached from identity of the gluttonous caterpillar. The caterpillar crawls into the paradox and becomes a beautiful Buddhist butterfly: It now holds that we must live every single moment of our lives as a butterfly emerging from the golem. It is the liberating thought that everything is possible for those who can be emptied from their previous thoughts. It is in fact the way we experience our lives and our identity through a story we tell ourselves that includes the disintegration and re-integration of our identity. 

One of the world’s best-known film directors associated with Buddhism in general and its Transcendental Meditation in particular is the American director David Lynch (1946- ). The motif of dissertation and re-integration of our self-identity is woven throughout Lynch’s films and culminates to its artistic perfection in his latest film, “Inland Empire”. The film describes the fragmented self-identity of a girl who is “imported” from poverty in Poland to a miserable reality in the United States. She is forced to work as a prostitute but he cannot cope with it and thus loses her grip in the world as a sentient person. In the beginning of the film she is already portrayed as both a heroine in a Hollywood melodrama and the glamorous actress who plays the heroine in melodrama. This dual distinction is undermined as the film progresses and the heroine a series of torn identities appears on the screen: she is also a failed actress who plays the role of the glamorous actress, an actress who plays someone who fantasizes that she is the glamorous actress, a whore who escapes from the daily horrid reality, a failed murderer and all sorts of fragmented identities. At this stage her self-identity is destroyed and sheer terror consumes her soul. Like the Mahayana Buddhism, which poses to the question of the distinction between identity and non-identity of the self, Lynch portrays his fragmented identities in order to challenge this distinction. In “Inland Empire” he creates an inner world which is very close to the way we compose (and decompose) our self-identity on a daily basis: we experience our identity through a story we tell ourselves about and this story which itself falls apart sooner or later, and all these identity-pieces reunite into another story that contains the bits and pieces of our dusty, old self-identity. Lynch, Buddhism and even the hungry caterpillar tell us about the incoherent way we experience of our self-identity:  life is a Sisyphean effort to tell ourselves why we are what we are or why we are so hungry.

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01/22/2022 · 4:39 am

Tarot Philosophy: Non, Je Regrette Tout: Aristotle and Edith Piaf

We all sometimes feel regret about things we have said or done but does the feeling of regret changes anything at all?  In general, is it good or bad to be too regretful? Spinoza thinks that regret is a pain opposed to pleasure and that regret is a special kind of pain: when we regret, we add a second-order pain to the first-order pain we have now or had in the past. First, we hurt ourselves (or others) and then we torment ourselves in vain. 

According to Aristotle, the genuine reflexive positive nature of regret makes it a virtue. Regret affirms the existence of a virtue that aspires to become part of our character. Therefore, regret does not concern, as is commonly thought, the evil deed we have done but the fact that we could not be in the harmonious existence of virtue.

What involves the fact that we are often so determined to regret? What are the actual facts that may lead us to regret? We basically believe that we feel regret because we assume that now we are correctly grasping our moral state; what happened?

It is generally believed that regret is a moral problem concerning our ever changing needs. Occasionally those feelings lack moral coherence and causing us to prefer one of them. But is it really the case? We know that we might feel regret and still morally err, we might feel regret and not be evil.

Perhaps regret is not defined as a lack of moral coherence but as a relation between knowledge and the lack of knowledge. Therefore, we may feel regret because we now know things we did not know at all in the past or we will not acknowledge in the future. But if regret is a relation between knowledge and the lack of knowledge, then the feelings accompanying the fact that I could do things differently and yet consciously (or unconsciously) chose to do otherwise are unreasonable. Why we cannot just avoid the sense of regret? We need to define the connection between regret and morality. This is exactly what Aristotle tells us in his book the “Nicomachean Ethics”. 

In the “Nicomachean Ethics” Aristotle defines our involuntary actions and passions (Akousios). He claims that our involuntary actions and passions (as opposed to voluntary ones) are performed out of compulsion or not in agreement with our inner nature and will. When the cause of our actions or passions is out of our control then the action (or passion) is purely compulsory. The actions and passions are partially compulsory when the choice to act is ours and is made in order to avoid some unwanted consequence. 

If our involuntary actions are done not according to our will then they are performed by reason of ignorance. Acting by reason of ignorance is unlike acting in ignorance: when I am drunk, I act in ignorance but not by reason of ignorance; and when I accidently shoot a deer, I act by reason of ignorance and not in ignorance. We are not responsible for actions done by reason of ignorance. They are casually determined from the outside world and do not belong to our will.  

The actions done by reason of ignorance are involuntary (Akousios) or non-voluntary (Ouch Hekousios). We can regret our involuntary actions; we would not have done them if we only knew the state of affairs. The non-voluntary actions done by reason of ignorance involve no regret; it is possible that we would have done them anyway. If we do not regret an action done by reasons of ignorance then we were and still non-willing. If we do regret an involuntary action done by reasons of ignorance then we were unwilling and now we are regretful.

We must stress here that Aristotle thinks that neither voluntary inner natured actions (of any kind) nor compulsory non-voluntary ignorant action involve regret. I can only regret actions done by reason of ignorance and are involuntary. For example, I can regret that I have (against my will) cheated in the test (involuntary action) but not that I have urgently taken a piss in public (non-voluntary ignorant action) or that I have chosen to pretend that I am ill and not go to the test (voluntary action done by reason of ignorance). Only our involuntary actions can testify for the existence of unaccomplished virtue. Involuntary actions are those that we regretfully realize that they were done against our will and Non-voluntary actions are not related to our will at all so we cannot regret them. 

Aristotle would like us to understand how we judge a particular action as not virtuous if we do not understand the state of affairs at the time of its execution. 

If I do not feel regret at all then my will was not involved in my action. Everything happened without my agency, I was unwilling. On the other hand, if I know that I could have acted differently than I have acted, it likely that I would feel regret for not being willingly virtuous. Regret is an active and positive mental force which prevents us from being indifferent to our mental life. Aristotle writes that the object of our regret is always involuntary actions done by people and not the existence of non-living things. If an earthquake destroys my house then I regret my decision to live in that region and not the unexpected tectonic movement.

Regret also plays a key role in differentiating between the intemperate and the incontinent persons. The incontinent lack of self-control is expressed by her weakness of the will (Akrasia). The intemperate person is wicked and does not feel regret at all.

She is incurable, since she totally abides by her decision when she acts. Thus our regret is not the passionate outcome of embarrassment or humiliation but a misconception of ourselves as moral creatures accompanied afterwards by the awareness to our immoral nature. Aristotle takes here an empirical approach: the akratic person feels regret due to her intelligent use of her wisdom and not her injudicious passions. Emotional acts such as outbursts of anger are not deeds done knowingly and intentionally and therefore we cannot regret them. We can regret our Akrasia or lack of self-control because we did, knowingly and voluntarily, the opposite of what we believes in.  We are therefore held responsible for our acts and regret is possible. Akrasia is a power taking control of our minds and we can regretfully acknowledge it. The akratic person acts contrary to reason as a result of a certain pathos (emotion). The non-akratic person experiences pathos as well, but she operates in accordance with her logic. The acratic person not only experiences the pathos, but she also succumbed to it more often.

We said earlier that the intemperate person is wicked and does not feel regret at all. In what sense is she different from the akratic?  The akratic has a weak sense of knowing on which even when she involuntary loses control, she still has knowledge of the good action; but it is not durable enough to be displayed in her behavior. The intemperate has her practical moral inference as well but she does not possess the knowledge of the morally good action. We have to pay attention that Aristotle does not claim that the weak reason of the akratic was defeated by the strong pathos (emotion); the pathos could be weak but its reasoning could prevail the morally good wisdom and cause Akrasia. The akratic is like an actress on stage: she could express similar words to those who have real knowledge; however, this does not prove that she really does have such knowledge. We said earlier that according to Aristotle, the genuine reflexive positive nature of regret makes it a virtue. When the akratic person regrets her involuntary actions she actually affirms the existence of knowledge of the good that aspires to become part of her character; even though she acted differently. 

The Lover and Tower cards in the Tarot can tell us a lot about regret. Apparently, the Lover card tells us the story of falling in love, a romantic relationship. Actually, the lovers in the card are in a strenuous emotional mess. The middle figure is in a tense dilemma between reason (right figure) and passion (left figure). He is incontinent (akratic) and his regret in manifested in his hesitant gestures. Like the incontinent, he knows reason and can even feel its gentle touch but his emotions (pathos) lays their heavy hands (burden) on his shoulders. He lived a life of desire and lack of confidence and now his present tells him to go forward and choose. It will not be easy: the arrows of wisdom can hurt him. It seems that we encounter him when he is willing to choose a life of reason even though he knows that his choice has some far-reaching consequences. His regret unifies present reason with past emotion to their intellectual promise.

 Incontinence involve a conflict between reason and passion and according to Aristotle, continence involves the same conflict. The incontinent (akratic) gives in to passion while the continent person feels the same passions, but resists them and choses reason. In this context, we can understand the meaning of the Tower card as the therapist of the Lover card. We saw that the Lover was incontinent but the sudden rational realization of the Tower have healed the Lover from its Akrasia. We can heal our weakness of will by a sudden insight or idea that undermines the existing emotional structures we have built.

At first sight, we think that the figures in the Tower card are falling down as a result of a catastrophic physical disaster, but they are actually happy to find again their new moral ground. Aristotle claims that the incontinent are ignorant of a particular premise, not the universal premise. The Tower card displays the striking of a specific truth in a specific place; thus it symbolizes the striking of a new particular premise which leads to a new moral choice. 

For example, the incontinent knows that cigarettes are bad for every person; he also knows that he is person. He chooses to smoke because he is partially unaware of the premise that “This is a cigarette”. The continent is exposed to the same temptation but resists it.

The song sounds like a hymn and the lyrics tell us that the storyteller “regret nothing”. She does not regret the good things that have been done to her nor the bad things; she does not regret her past troubles and pleasures and claims that she does not need them anymore, they are “swept away, forgotten”. 

If we understand the figures in the Tower card as healing from incontinence towards continence, we can claim that their old perceptual knowledge (tower) has collapsed, but they see their crisis as an opportunity for a personal growth. The continent person falls on his moral ground and so are they. This is the joy of finding their new-born wisdom; they dance their new personal reality around the old tower of ignorance with no regret in their hearts. 

The song “Non, Je ne regrette rien” (“No, I regret nothing”) performed by the French cabaret singer, songwriter and actress Edith Piaf (1915-1963) is one of the most famous songs of all times. Piaf charismatic voice breaks from the French chanson norms by her vocal presentation, emphasizing the emotional lyrics. Piaf sings the fantastic blend of regret and her freedom of will, a blending of electrifying opposites. She does not sing from her heart, she sings her personal life story. When Piaf heard the song for the second time she cried: “this is the song I have been waiting for. It will be my biggest success! I want it for my coming performance at L’Olympia!”

I grasp Piaf’s mental condition as “ascending the cliffs” of incontinence. Her continence is so weak that she is prone to abandon every belief she had. I see her losing her mastery and acts against her reason. Her new love and life makes her submit, maybe for the first time in her life, to pathos (emotion). She is ready to give in to her involuntary feelings rather than reason.  The song is about the denial of regret but in its final lines we feel that the annihilation of regret of unsuccessful; like the sphinx, it rises up out of Piaf’s emotional desert. As the English moral philosopher Bernard Williams said, she regains her identity as a person in the world.

We clearly notice that Piaf’s denial of regret is almost justified in the Aristotelian terms. Mostly she does not regret the “things that have been done” to her and her passive emotions. We saw that the regretful Aristotelian akratic person can regret her involuntary actions due to his previous weakness of will, but her actions are always non-compulsory and active. Hence the non-akratic Piaf cannot regret things done to her against her will or without her genuine choice. We have to mention here that Piaf’s denial of regret is in non-Spinozistic as well because she does not support her denial by the reason of an excessive redundant emotion.

But as the song continues, her attitude becomes more passive and she undermines her previous denial of regret. She does not care about the past; it’s all the same for her. She is swept away and hopes to start again from zero. Her new life and joys will begin “today…with you”. We clearly notice that in the Aristotelian sense she is not a temperate person because she hints us about her excessive or dishonorable past desires. She cannot be a strong continent person as well: She was not an active desiring person who did something improper due to weakness of her will.  Although some of her desires were good, the state that prevented her from following them were weak. In Aristotelian terms, her continence “is nothing impressive”.

The song’s ending tells us that her new love makes her choose to start over. But is it really a choice? She says rather passively that her life begins with her new object of love. Thus her extremely weak continence makes her, in Aristotle words, “prone to abide by every belief”. She accepts every false (or true) belief as long as it is new.

I grasp Piaf’s mental condition as “ascending the cliffs” of incontinence. Her continence is so weak that she is prone to abandon every belief she had. I see her losing her mastery and acts against her reason. Her new love and life makes her submit, maybe for the first time in her life, to pathos (emotion). She is ready to give in to her involuntary feelings rather than reason.  The song is about the denial of regret but in its final lines we feel that the annihilation of regret of unsuccessful; like the sphinx, it rises up out of Piaf’s emotional desert. As the English moral philosopher Bernard Williams said, she regains her identity as a person in the world.

We have seen that human emotions like anger and regret reflect on our mental and physiological states. This reflection involves a meta-information about our persona as whole. According to Jung, the persona is a mixture of masks, behind which we can hide our psyche. The persona is like a hall of mirrors where our thoughts and feelings are twisted in endless and socio-elastic shapes. 

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01/21/2022 · 1:38 pm

Tarot Philosophy: Game of Thrones Tarot and Theater: Marcus Aurelius

“Only he who is capable of a genuine encounter with the other is capable of an authentic encounter with himself, and the converse is equally true…From this perspective, every spiritual exercise is a dialogue, insofar as it is an exercise of authentic presence, to oneself and to others.” ―Pierre Hadot

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180) is an unusual figure in the history of ideas. His figure is so unique because he was not only a Roman Emperor, but also and a Stoic philosopher. Unlike his predecessors, he rejected the pleasures of wealth and power and lived a modest life inspired by the teachings of Stoicism. For him, being the emperor of Rome was utter mandatory job. In solitude, he wrote his “Meditations” for himself. His battle tent was a philosophical shelter, an inner citadel from the entire Roman world.

Marcus wrote almost every day, even in the frontline of battle when he returned to his modest tent. His innermost thoughts were written “for himself”; no doubt he would be surprised to find that 2000 years later these thoughts will be considered as one of the most important books which have survived from the late roman Stoicism.

He was in constant conflict: on the one hand, the fate of the Roman empire rested on his shoulders; on the other hand, he aspired to live a Stoic way of life away from trouble. He fluctuated between faith and skepticism. Therefore, he constantly had to overcome himself: “throw away your books; no longer distract yourself: it is not allowed.” he writes.

 Marcus is the definite illustration that Plato’s dream concerning the ruler-philosopher will never come true. The Emperor card illustrates this duality which governed Marcus’ life. On the one hand, the emperor’s figure holds his wand in authority and control; on the other hand, we notice that he almost slips from his affluent chair. The emperor sits with his legs crossed as a sign for self-discipline but perhaps he conceals his inconvenience from his emperorship.

The wand which is hoisted forward suggests that the emperor tends to solve issues by his assertive power. This power often finds its expression through the archetypal male phallus of dictatorship, military and war. However, we see that the commanding wand slants towards the emperor and not really forward. This could suggest that the emperor’s power is just a façade.  Power, leadership, and responsibility could be a mask for the philosopher sitting on the royal throne.

 In his “Meditations” Marcus is revealed as one of the most devoted pantheist of all Stoic philosophers. By pantheism I mean that Markus believed that the world is an absolute unity of all things. Everything in nature is harmonically connected in a causal chain emanating from the one, from god.  God or the one is found in all things and beings, He is the sole logos of the universe. Unlike Stoic philosophers who preceded him, Marcus does not believe that the one cares for each individual separately. He argues that only God actually exists in the world, he is everything, and no other. The universe is a living organism with a single sentient mind.

The Emperor card displays a similar viewpoint when its character holds the wand imitating the figure of the number one. In order to find a meaning for this imitation we can trace the emperor’s gaze. We will find that he is staring at the Cross attached to his wand’s top. Thus, the emperor’s imitation could imply that that all human beings are unified under the power of the Cross. The emperor is the ruler of the civilized human world; his gaze and gestures imply that the existence of humanity must be defined by the oneness of the cross.

Although the unity of the Cross is a powerful one, we find in the card a unity which governs it. This is the unity of the entire universe which is represented by the card’s number in the Tarot deck, the number four. We can see the number four as a symbol for the unity of the universal four elements. The card’s number lies above the emperor’s wand, thus the unity of all humans under the Cross is a mere manifestation of the unity of the universe.

Marcus believes that God (or nature) is a perfect being while man is not. Man existence is determined by nature’s laws of causality.  Man must recognize that he is part of nature, a piece in an endless chain of casual determinations of God. Everything in this world is constantly changing and ultimately forgotten, even the glory of the Emperor.

We find this temporality in the Tarot as well. We notice that the emperor holds his wand in a slight tilt to the right and not in stable grip. Thus, the card could imply that the unity of the four elements is superior to the emperor’s decrees. Man can’t hold his wand straight and firm without giving-up to the laws of nature. He is submitted to causality, to God’s nature.

Not only this submission has a physical aspect, but it has a psychological one as well. A closer examination of the emperor’s wand reveals that it looks very similar to the opium plant. A further observation reveals that perhaps the emperor inhales the scents of this wand-opium plant through his nose. 

The link to Markus is a written testimony by the learned doctor Aelius Galenus who was one of Markus’ contemporaries. According to Galenus, Marcus was an opium addict and consumed it on a daily basis. Thus, Markus and the emperor in the card know they are submitted to the laws of nature but tragically seek to escape from this dominance to an alternate world. In this world they can rule without any disquieting philosophical meditations

The Stoic philosophers believed that all creatures are part of nature in such a way that they all operate according to a cyclical movement of a single living organism. According to their deterministic philosophy, all things are governed by the Logos, the rational force. The Logos is the guiding spirit of the world and there is no redundancy in it. Everything has a role in the Logos and its cycle is beyond the control of humans. Therefore they must surrender to the will of God and accept the fact that they can’t control the appearance of things.

Although the universe is deterministic, people have the freedom to shape their approach to events. From all creatures, our nature is the closest to God because he has an intellect (Nous) which is emanating from God. Thus, we have a great mental strength and freedom to do God’s will. We are part of God’s nature and by doing our will we are actually doing God’s will. Being part of God’s nature, our mind is also eternal; the human mind will not disappear with the death of the body but will return to God, to the one unity. We see that the consolation of emperor Marcus Aurelius was that his soul will return to the one which it was originally emanated from in a harmonious and balanced cycle. Similarly, the Emperor in the Tarot finds his balance and consolation in the Temperance card. 

 The emperor and the temperance cards share the number four: the emperor is the fourth card, while the temperance is the fourteenth. In the Tarot, the number four symbolizes personal accomplishment. The temperance is the guardian angel of the emperor: without temperance, the emperor’s triumph is selfish and domineering: if we place the temperance card facing the emperor, it might heal him from his selfishness. The healing process starts when the emperor realizes that the world is not dominated by his material wealth but by the rule of an internal circulation and harmony. Everything will be poured back into the same jar it came from, even his wealth and kingdom. Acting according laws of nature is the emperor’s intellectual medicine. This is perhaps the harmony reached in silence after the “OM” mantra of mediation. We can even notice the shapes of the letters M (or E) which appear on the emperor’s neck. These initials could stand for Emperor Markus as well.

Without the emperor, temperance is immaterial and futile: the Emperor unveils the definitive material manifestation of the infinite matter to her. Being written in a biographic tone, Markus’ philosophy is not only intended to demonstrate how to be a better emperor, but also how Plato’s “Philosopher-King” is actually possible.

We can’t really tell whether Marcus’ soul has reached the eternal sphere, but amazingly enough, his striking bronze statue is the only intact Pagan Roman statue left today. The statue shows the victorious Marcus riding his horse and one of its most interesting details is the fact that Markus is unarmed. In the Tarot the figure of the Emperor is not armed as well; one can assume that both of them wear their philosophical armor which is the core of their power 

:In the closing paragraph of his “Meditations”, Markus writes

 “Man, you have been a citizen in this great state [the world]; what difference does it make to you whether for five years [or three]? for that which is conformable to the laws is just for all. Where is the hardship then, if no tyrant nor yet an unjust judge sends you away from the state, but nature, who brought you into it? The same as if a praetor who has employed an actor dismisses him from the stage —”But I have not finished the five acts, but only three of them.”—you say well, but in life the three acts are the whole drama; for what shall be a complete drama is determined by him who was once the cause of its composition, and now of its dissolution: but you are the cause of neither. Depart then satisfied, for he also who releases you is satisfied.

It is interesting to note that the number four of the Emperor card is the mean number of three and five, as if the figure in the card tries vainly to close the conceptual gap between mortality and immortality. 

Markus words remind us that life is eventually a stage and we can add that Tarot is agame played by two people on the reading stage. We can’t avoid mentioning Shakespeare’s famous lines from the pastoral comedy “As You Like” which curiously resemble the lines quoted from Markus: 

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts…”

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11/12/2021 · 4:36 am